How To “Show Don’t Tell” In Your Writing

You can’t swing a dead cat in the bookstore’s (or the internet’s) “how to write” area without finding something which gives the admonition to “show don’t tell” the reader what is happening. It’s one of those writing cliches that you think you understand but really have no idea what it means or how to put it into practice. I say this because developing writers, myself included, tend to show the reader very poorly!

I read an article today at that cleared up my confusion on the matter. When I previously tried to “show don’t tell” I wrote what I wanted the reader to feel.

“Shut up, Tom,” he said, the anger plain in his voice.

This is wrong. This is not showing the reader anything other than how poor of a writer you are. This is bad, lazy writing and should be killed with fire. The only way to make it worse would be to include some gratuitous adverbs (think “menacingly” or “threateningly”). There is a better way.  It requires a change to how you think about your writing and a lot more work.

One sentence in Jerry’s article fixed my thinking (and hopefully my writing) about the show versus tell mantra.

“Well-written books trigger the theater of the mind and allow readers to create their own visual.”

What struck me about this sentence is the word “theater.” It makes sense when you think about what happens when we read. We convert the letters on the page directly into images in our heads. This is exactly what happens in reality (without the chore of reading).

We are trained from birth to see and interpret everything in our environment, from body language to the weather. We hear the nuances of vocal tone, not just the dialog. We receive more non-verbal information than what the words can communicate by themselves. If our writing does not give us this wealth of additional information to complete the imagery, it comes off flat, artificial, and boring.

Our job is to provide the missing imagery in written form so the reader’s mind can turn it into a movie in their head. That is what is meant by show don’t tell. It sounds simple, right?

I went Googling for an exercise to include here and found a bunch of great ones. Here’s the one I liked the best. If you struggle with this like I do, you should follow the link and do the exercises. Let’s try a couple of quick examples.

Example 1:
Telling: He was mad.

Showing: He clenched his teeth, his jaw pulsing. His heartbeat pounded in his ears. His knew his face had turned bright red but he didn’t care.

Example 2:
Telling: She was tired.

Showing: Her eyes burned. Every movement required her utmost concentration. Behind her half-closed eyes, she daydreamed about finishing this job so she could trudge up the stairs and fall into bed.

These two examples are simplistic, but they illustrate the concept. We have to literally tell the reader what it is they are seeing, or they just won’t get it.

The need to show don’t tell also explains why a good novel is so long. It takes a lot more words, and a corresponding amount of work, to paint the picture for the reader than it does to only tell them the facts. Consider the first example. A three word “telling” sentence transformed itself into twenty-five words with minimal effort.

Mastering the art of showing is not easy. If it were, everyone would be a great writer. Just because you are aware of the need to show your reader what is happening does not mean you can do it well – yet. There are a couple of traps you need to avoid.

First, and most common, is the tendency to use cliched language. When I catch myself doing this I am reminded of how a cheesy romance novel is written.

Telling: She was attractive.

Showing (cliched language): She had the body of a goddess. Her ice blue eyes captured a man’s gaze and held it like a vise. Her ample bosom strained against the translucent fabric of her bikini. Men wanted her and women wanted to be her.

Ridiculous, right? Don’t write that way. You can paint the picture without being gaudy, to continue to metaphor.

The second trap to avoid is the quest for originality. In our attempt to show the reader while avoiding cliched language, we will go to extremes to come up with an original way to say what is better said with plain language.

Telling: The airplane was huge.

Showing (too original): The aircraft squatted on the tarmac like a titan albatross, dwarfing all the other jets.

What the hell is a titan albatross? That’s what your reader would think when you get too inventive. Keep it simple.

Telling: The airplane was huge.

Showing: The jet sat on the tarmac, its wings sagging under their weight. The pilot of a passing Cessna stared up in wonder as he drove his puddle-jumper under the fuselage.

The job is to show the reader what they need to see, not to impress them with the novel descriptions you devise. It’s a fine line to walk. No one walks it perfectly all the time.

I hope this article helps you get your head around showing the reader instead of telling them. Thinking of the task as creating a movie for the reader has helped me in my own work. Let me know what works for you when dealing with this problem. There has to be more than one good way to deal with this issue.

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